An Assessment of the Death Penalty in the State of Georgia

Although several states still have the death penalty, there are some instances when the death penalty in a particular state may need to be assessed. Georgia is one of those states.

The death penalty and the U.S. Supreme Court

In 2002, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty for mentally retarded individuals violated the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution against cruel and unusual punishment. In the 6-3 decision, an earlier decision was reversed. In a 1989 decision, the Court had ruled that executing mentally retarded individuals was not unconstitutional because there was no “national consensus” against executing those sentenced to death who were mentally retarded.

The 2002 case, Atkins v. Virginia, No. 00-8452, was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court after Virginia’s Supreme Court rejected Atkins’s claim that his mental retardation prohibited his being executed after being convicted of capital murder. Justice Stevens wrote the majority opinion and the court held that “Executions of mentally retarded criminals are ‘cruel and unusual punishments’ prohibited by the Eighth Amendment.” The decision can be read at the Cornell University Law School.

Although the 2002 Atkins decision clearly held that executing those who are sentenced to death when the convicted individual is mentally retarded, there are a couple of states that are finding ways to execute the mentally retarded in spite of the Supreme Court ruling. Texas is one of those states. Georgia is clearly another.

On Thursday, February 21, 2013, the State of Georgia executed 38 year-old Andrew Allen Cook. Cook had been convicted of killing two college students in 1995. According to CBS News, the students, Grant Patrick Henderson and Michele Lee Cartagena were shot as they sat in a car at Lake Juliette, near Atlanta.

Cook apologized to the families of the victims just before being the first person executed since Georgia began using a single lethal dose of pentobarbital, rather than the “cocktail” of three drugs that Georgia had previously used.

Andrew Allen Cook had confessed to his own father that he committed the crimes. His father was an FBI agent. His father, John, approached his son, who was then just 22 years old and advised him that authorities wanted to talk to him about the slayings.

The execution of Cook was delayed temporarily, but only because of a challenge to Georgia’s lethal injection procedure, not because of Cook’s alleged mental state.

Cook’s legal team had complained throughout the appeals process that Cook was mentally ill and was being treated for depression. Those claims fell on deaf ears.

Not only have claims of mental illness failed to sway the State of Georgia from proceeding with plans to execute inmates sentenced to death, but those who are mentally retarded are finding it difficult to win reprieve, in spite of the 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling against executing the mentally retarded.

In a Reuters report published by NBC News, in February 2013, Georgia granted “last-minute reprieves” to Warren Hill. Hill was already in prison, serving a life sentence for killing his girlfriend when he was convicted of killing his cellmate in 1990. Hill has long been deemed mentally retarded, with an IQ of 69, according to the report. Other sources put his IQ at 70, the standard for determining mental retardation in the prison system, apparently.

In 2012, Hill was granted a temporary reprieve, but because of the state changing to the one-drug system instead of the cocktail, not because of his mental retardation. Then again, his execution date was set. David A. Love, Executive Director, Witness to Innocence, claimed in ‘Georgia Wants to Execute Warren Hill,’ on the Huffington Post, that Georgia “may be about to execute a man in violation of the U.S. Constitution.” Love contended that the 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling calling executing inmates who are mentally retarded cruel and unusual punishment was apparently “not good enough for the Peach State.”

The State of Georgia is said to have the strictest standard in the entire United States for declaring a convicted inmate “mentally retarded,’ and therefore not eligible to be executed for his or her crimes. Georgia requires that an individual must be mentally retarded “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Amnesty International issued a scathing statement regarding the impending execution of Warren Hill. In its statement, Amnesty International said that “Its appalling that the State of Georgia plans to execute a man who is mentally disabled with an I.Q. of 70. The state’s decision not only defied the U.S. Supreme Court, but flies in the face of all human decency. The state courts have ruled Warren Hill to be mentally retarded with a diminished I.Q. and nine doctors who examined him agree that he is mentally retarded. If Georgia executes Mr. Hill, it will have committed a grievous injustice.”

The execution of Warren Hill was put on hold just 30 minutes before his scheduled execution.

Does Georgia have a pattern of executing the innocent?

Perhaps one of the most questionable executions ever is that of Troy Davis. Davis was convicted of killing a Savannah off-duty police officer in 1989. He maintained his innocence throughout the trial and his stay in prison before he as finally executed in September 2011.

According to ABC News, seven witnesses recanted their original testimony, stating they were pressured into making their original statements by police. There was even the possible confession made by another man. Yet, Georgia proceeded with the execution of Mr. Davis, which the U.S. Supreme Court declined to halt, in spite of growing numbers of individuals, even many celebrities and politicians calling for a stay of execution. Amnesty International also fought in vain for Troy Davis.

Diane Rust-Tierney, Executive Director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty stated that “as deeply troubling as it was to observe the indifference of the Georgia justice system to a compelling case of innocence, it was a rude awakening to feel that the Georgia system was equally indifferent to concerns expressed by millions of Georgia citizens, people across the nation and world.”

Death Penalty Focus said that no gun or other evidence was ever found that directly tied Davis to the crime. David Love noted that Georgia is “a state where five death row inmates have been exonerated.”

Whether there is a problem in Georgia over the execution of convicted inmates which violates the U.S. Constitution, or that defies common decency, raising questions about the innocence of inmates sentenced to death may be a matter of personal interpretation. It is clear, however, that the death penalty in the State of Georgia, as well as the application of the death penalty, needs to be reviewed as soon as possible.